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Women in Love

British director Ken Russell's film version of D.H. Lawrence's 1920 novel Women in Love (1969) was a milestone in screen eroticism, and a turning point in the careers of both Russell and star Glenda Jackson. But the idea for the film originated with another director, Silvio Narizzano (Georgy Girl, 1966), who suggested it to American producer Larry Kramer, then working in England.

Kramer (who later became a novelist, playwright and gay rights activist) was enthusiastic, but was dissatisfied with the script written by playwright David Mercer, and ended up writing another draft himself. Narizzano eventually dropped out, and Kramer approached Jack Clayton, Stanley Kubrick and Peter Brook to direct Women in Love. All of them turned it down and Kramer then offered the job to Ken Russell, whose two feature films had flopped miserably, but who had directed a series of well-received biographical films about famous artists (including dancer Isadora Duncan and composer Claude Debussy) for British television. Together, Kramer and Russell rewrote the script, incorporating more of Lawrence's dialogue.

Women in Love explores the relationships of the Brangwen sisters -- teacher Ursula and artist Gudrun -- with Rupert Birkin, a school official and intellectual, and his friend Gerald Crich, the son of a mine owner in the English Midlands district. It also examines the friendship between the two men, and the nature and limits of love. The first of the four leading roles to be cast was Birkin. Kramer had been talking to Alan Bates about playing Rupert from the start, and Russell was enthusiastic about him. For the part of Gerald, Kramer wanted Edward Fox, who fit Lawrence's description of the character as blond Nordic type; but Russell preferred dark, burly Oliver Reed, who had played Debussy and poet Dante Gabriel Rosetti in Russell's television biographies. Reed had starred in his uncle Carol Reed's Oscar®-winning hit, Oliver! (1968), so he was considered box office, and Kramer agreed. Glenda Jackson had little film experience. She was primarily a stage actress, a member of the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company, but both director and producer had been impressed by her powerful performance in the film version of Marat/Sade (1967), and agreed that she had the fierceness to play Gudrun. It was Jackson's first starring film role, and she won her first OscarĀ® for it. Vanessa Redgrave and Faye Dunaway both turned down the part of Ursula, realizing that the rather pallid character was certain to be overshadowed by Jackson's Gudrun. The role went to Jennie Linden, who was nominated for a British Academy Film Award for her performance.

The macho, street-smart Reed took an instant dislike to Jackson, the Shakespearean theater actress, perhaps intimidated by her. It didn't help that her character was supposed to bully and dominate his. There were rumors that he tried to have her replaced on the film, but the creative tension and rivalry between them worked for their characters, and they made two more films together. Years later, Reed spoke admiringly of her talent: "Once there's a spark there's always a fire, depending on where the wind blows and how much water you put on it. With good movement of air there is always combustion, and Glenda will always be Glenda."

Like the novel, the film version of Women in Love explores the nature of love and sexuality, and thanks to the creative freedom that filmmakers were enjoying in the late 1960s Russell was able to infuse the film with a frank eroticism that shattered some film taboos. There are nude lovemaking scenes between both couples, and the film broke new ground as one of the first to show male frontal nudity in several scenes. In one, Bates runs naked through the woods. More controversial was the famed nude wrestling scene between Bates and Reed. Russell and Kramer met with the British censor to discuss the scene, agreed with his suggestion that the lighting be dim, reassured him that there would not be "clearly visible genitals," and that homoerotic overtones would be "handled discreetly," according to correspondence released in 2011. One of the most provocative and sexually-charged scenes took place around an outdoor dining table, with all the participants fully clothed. Bates compares the figs they're eating to a woman's anatomy, and lasciviously devours it, shocking everyone at the table.

With Women in Love, the movie careers of Russell and Jackson were spectacularly launched. Besides Jackson's OscarĀ® win, the film earned three additional nominations, for Russell as Best Director, for adapted screenplay and for cinematography. Women in Love was well-received on both sides of the Atlantic, and even the critics who complained that the script dumbed down or romanticized Lawrence's novel praised the performances and Russell's visual style. Vincent Canby of the New York Times admitted that "Although the novel's ideas are necessarily simplified onscreen, the movie does capture a feeling of nature and of physical contact between people, and between people and nature, that is about as sensuous as anything you've ever seen in a film." More than 40 years later, in an appreciation of the film written after Russell's death in 2011, Australian critic Roderick Heath praised the director's "animated, dynamic camera, a visual entity that reproduces the thrashing sense of life found in the characters."

By Margarita Landazuri

Director: Ken Russell
Producer: Larry Kramer, Martin Rosen
Screenplay: Larry Kramer, Ken Russell (uncredited), based on the novel by D.H. Lawrence
Cinematography: Billy Williams
Editor: Michael Bradsell
Costume Design: Shirley Russell
Art Direction: Ken Jones
Music: Georges Delerue
Principal Cast: Alan Bates (Rupert Birkin), Oliver Reed (Gerald Crich), Glenda Jackson (Gudrun Brangwen), Jennie Linden (Ursula Brangwen), Eleanor Bron (Hermione Roddice), Alan Webb (Thomas Crich), Vladek Sheybal (Loerke), Sharon Gurney (Laura Crich)



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